Author Archives: Joey Whelan

Game 1 Redux: Miami’s Bullpen Finishes The Job

Photo via david.vigh on Flickr

The apex of my childhood sports fandom was the 1996 major league baseball season that saw the New York Yankees end an 18-year championship drought. That team played more nauseatingly close games than my pre-adolescent, lightweight stomach could handle, but I always knew if my beloved Bronx Bombers made is past the seventh inning with a lead all was well.

Mariano Rivera pitched the eighth.

John Wetteland handled the ninth.

Game over.

I don’t have the time, nor the energy to go game-by-game to exact the data, but I can say with absolute certainty that the Yankees played an inordinate number of close games that season, but if they led with six outs or fewer to go, that demonic bullpen duo shut the door with all the aplomb of an assassin.

Now, 15 years later in the wake of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, I am reminded of that devastatingly potent late game pair after watching LeBron James and Dwyane Wade finish off the Dallas Mavericks.

The production of Miami’s bench and Dallas’ inability to hit open shots (or the Heat willing them to miss) unquestionably played significant roles in the final outcome, but nothing trumps the competition like a deadly closer. Wade and LeBron were responsible for scoring or creating 14 of the Heat’s final 20 points in the last seven minutes of regulation, at once operating in unison and trading haymakers with devastating resolve. This game serves as the quintessential example of why Miami can not only win this series, but win a handful of NBA championships in the future – if they keep it close watch out.

Some have claimed the Heat offense has underwhelmed in the postseason. Maybe they’re right, but does it matter anymore? It certainly used to when the Fighting Spoelstra’s were searching for a harmonious existence and an identity amidst a season-long media firestorm. Now on the game’s biggest stage, the ends justify the means. During a televised timeout last night the head coach calmly told his bench to grind it out, buckle down and grind it out. Six months ago the thought of a team built around two of the most transcendent athletes of their generation grinding it out just didn’t seem a likely reality. We knew of Wade’s and James’ prodigious ability to get to the line, but certainly with both on the floor forming perhaps the most devastating open court duo in history, Miami would run teams out of the arena.

But having finally put it all together, the reality is the Heat attack doesn’t need to be perfect – far from it. Entering Game 1, Miami was a paltry 3-27 when shooting less than 40% from the floor. They’re now 4-27 because when push comes to shove you simply can’t contain both stars down the stretch. It’s akin to a now Methuselah-like Rivera remaining a dominant closer throwing one pitch that tops out at 90 miles per hour. Every hitter and every fan knows the cut fastball is coming each and every time, but it doesn’t matter. As long as New York gives him a lead, no matter how slim, more often than not he’s going to get the job done.

Miami’s offense was far from great last night, but they kept it close until the critical juncture when they could go to their bullpen. It’d be easy to analyze and break down each critical possession in the closing minutes, but the simple fact is two of the best players in the world are wearing the same jersey and you can’t double-team both. There are dynamic flashes as the end unfolds, James’ buzzer beater to end the third. His usual barrage of confidence shattering dunks, Wade’s geometric bending forays to the rim. Taken in the context of the finished product though, its a steady diet of the same pitch, the same attack, the same result. It’s mind numbing in its effectiveness.

Somewhere in South Beach is a 10-year-old kid who will grow up looking back fondly on the days when he could watch his beloved Heat play, knowing if it was at least close in the 4th quarter, he stood a good chance to see a win.

LeBron James and the artful transition

Photo via HaukeSteinberg.com on Flickr

“The concept of art is located in a historically changing constellation of elements; it refuses definition. Its essence cannot be deduced from its origin as if the first work were a foundation on which everything that followed were constructed and would collapse if shaken. The belief that the first artworks were the highest and purest is warmed-over romanticism; with no less justification it could be claimed that the earliest artistic works are dull and impure in that they are not yet separated from magic…”

- from “Aesthetic Theory” by Theodor W. Adorno

I give Adorno credit. I’ve spent the last seven months struggling to define my new and ever changing perception of LeBron James, trying to aptly express how it’s different watching him play. Why it’s different. Adorno more or less sums it up in less than a paragraph.

Jordan had to face accusations of being a one-man scoring machine incapable of leading a team to a championship. Kobe had to hear the whispers that maybe he couldn’t win it all without Shaq. Luke Skywalker had to lose a hand and face some hard truths about the lineage of his family tree. This isn’t to compare LeBron to any of them, but all have undergone a change, something palpable simply by looking at them.

James of course has undergone a degree of scrutiny never before see in the NBA, some of it his own doing, some of it a product of the time he lives in. But that’s only a part of it.

As a young, dominating member of the Cavaliers, James was something to behold – a force. Daily conversations with friends never boiled down to “Did you see the Cleveland game last night?” so much as it was “Did you see LeBron last night?” I was excited by the possibility of the unknown, the notion that anything could happen. The next play. The next game. The next 10 years. Watching James single-handedly restore a broken franchise to prominence while simultaneously shattering my perceptions of what a man his size was capable of was at once exhilarating and left me even hungrier for more.

Even as his career continued to develop and the expectations grew exponentially, there was some sense of being able to forgive his transgressions (read: inability to win a championship). James’ career arc seemed to be tilted so high that he inevitably would win a handful of rings, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest of all time. He remained the high school prodigy in many ways, still unearthing his talents before our eyes.

The Decision changed all of that.

Part of his allure in those days was his singularity, a one-man wrecking crew, it’s something that even if you weren’t a serious basketball fan, could be appreciated. His role in Miami has morphed, become more sophisticated, less about reckless abandon and more about seamless execution within the confines of a game plan. His love of playing is no longer tangible through my TV screen. Hardened by criticism and the pressure of validating his off-season moving, maybe the Wonder Kid is at the point where he’s no longer willing to make excuses for himself. But like Adorna says about the first works of art, change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

James’ career has no definition right now, a byproduct of its still relatively early stage and the unprecedented turn of events it has undergone. Maybe that’s been the hardest part, seeing what once appeared a readily definable career turn to something much less certain.  Eight years ago I knew LeBron was the most hyped high school basketball player of all time. Three years ago I knew he was destined to win half a dozen MVP awards and lead Cleveland to the Promised Land. Today?

I know James will win titles, the learning curve for Miami has been too steep this season to think the Heat won’t put it all together at some point in the next five years. I know he’ll win more MVP awards, he “quietly” had his most efficient season ever in 2011 and many felt he was deserving of the honor. I don’t know if I’ll ever see the carefree LeBron that was omnipresent in Cleveland, the one who intermittingly danced with teammates while slaying defenses. But maybe to reach the lofty status to which he aspires change does have to happen and childish things do have to be put away.

Following Cleveland’s loss to Boston in the playoffs last year it was said that maybe LeBron was destined to be my generation’s Julius Erving. One of the all-time greats, an individual lauded for their physical dominance over the game, loved by many, but never held in the same regard as the great champions of the sport. No one will ever call Jordan or Kobe fun loving; they were killers in their prime. And therein lies my personal struggle – sometimes what we want, isn’t always what’s best.

James’ legacy is and always was dependent on him developing an otherworldly killer instinct. Maybe it took the perceived role as the villain to fully manifest itself, but the once jovial phenom has grown up. I remain in awe of his physical abilities, talents that I’m still waiting to see reach their limitation, talents that will inevitably leave an indelible mark on the NBA when they are spent. They needed focus and they needed direction. LeBron seems to have found that, maybe it’s time my perceptions do the same.

Bite The Hand That Feeds You

Photo via MattyPape2008 on Flickr

“There is nothing that will kill a man so soon as having nobody to find fault with but himself.”

- T.S. Elliot

It’s easy to criticize and find fault with others – hell, it can be downright fun. Inevitably though, we all reach an instance where we begin looking for those mistakes, combing each scenario for any blemish to pounce on, to unearth the errors of our contemporaries. At what point does this practice become exaggerated to the point where we are blinded by our own preconceived notions, be they right or wrong? When does bias begin to outweigh objectivity?

For many of the individuals quickly flocking to the growing army of Russell Westbrook detractors, that line is beginning to blur, with the process only further augmented by the postseason stage.

The burgeoning guard has been both criticized and exonerated on this very sight and the esteemed Royce Young of Daily Thunder has repeatedly provided insightful writing into the so-called “hero mode” that Westbrook is often condemned for. In his most recent post – a careful examination of the final seven minutes the Thunder’s game 3 loss to Memphis, a loss in which Westbrook was blistered for his so-called team synergy meltdown – Young paints a much different picture. Rather than reinforcing the notion of Westbrook as a virulent presence on the court, he argues the explosive playmaker is a victim of the situation, reacting to the options the defense leaves him.

It’s convincing and well thought out material to be sure and I unequivocally agree with it. While Westbrook is unquestionably deserving of some fault, he isn’t the ball-hogging monster with no regard for setting that many are attempting to make him out to be. He isn’t the driving force preventing Kevin Durant from dominating the offense as he did in Oklahoma City’s opening round series win over Denver. Somehow, because it’s Memphis, Westbrook’s critics aren’t willing to give credit where credit is due: the Grizzlies – specifically Tony Allen – are doing a fantastic job at taking away Durant as an option.

Allen’s impact on Durant has been palpable and the numbers only further emphasize the devastating effect he has had on the NBA’s top scorer. According to data from NBA StatsCube, Durant averages 19 points per-36 minutes on 35% shooting when Allen is on the floor. When the defensive stalwart is on the bench, those marks grow exponentially to 29 points on 62% shooting. The fact that Allen has spent almost as much time on the bench (51 minutes) versus on the floor (76 minutes) in the first three games of this series only serves to further support the easily distinguishable fact that he is severely limiting Durant as a scorer.

The end result is one in which Westbrook – already the owner of a massive usage rate – must compensate for the inhibiting effect on Durant.

Also lost in the fray has been the variance in play calling the Thunder has exhibited in the postseason. According to Synergy Sports Technology, during the regular season Oklahoma City’s most prevalent play-type on offense was touches in spot-up sets, with isolation sets not far behind. In the playoffs, both of those have been usurped by the pick and roll which has accounted for just over 17% of the total possessions through eight games. Is it any wonder that Westbrook has seen an increase in shot attempts when his team is running more plays that highlight his strengths turning the corner off of screens?

It’s been argued by many, but the path to acceptance has been stymied by bias: Westbrook simply doesn’t fit the traditional definition of a point guard, yet he is continually held to the same standards as his contemporaries. Equally as apt of a scorer as he is a playmaker, but more importantly the second scoring option on this Thunder team, Westbrook is doing exactly what he should be more often than not. His propensity for making errors in judgment in spectacular fashion has unsurprisingly nullified his beneficial qualities, but he isn’t destroying on the court cohesiveness.

For all of his otherworldly physical gifts and abilities, Westbrook remains a young player still learning the game. He isn’t Steve Nash, he isn’t Rajon Rondo, he’s a unique talent still in the process of being understood by many. Westbrook may never develop into the consummate point guard, he is what he is, and that doesn’t make him any less of a cornerstone piece in the Thunder’s future. Oklahoma City fans understand this, sooner or later, the rest of us will follow.

The Vulnerability Of Arrogance

Photo via mrocki1 on Flickr

Maybe it was Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals that led to Danny Ainge trading Kendrick Perkins.

Even without the defensive stalwart thwarting scoring attempts in the lane the Boston Celtics still led the Los Angeles Lakers with less than seven minutes to play. A loss meant his team – a year older – would only be that much hungrier entering the 2011 playoffs, eager to win another championship before the triumvirate of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were no longer capable of elevating their play to the highest level. Certainly with Rajon Rondo blossoming into a superstar and the emergence of Glen Davis as a viable frontcourt presence, meant it was time to start thinking about the next wave of Celtic teams beyond the Big Three.

The opportunity to acquire a young, athletic wing player who could shoulder some of the load for Allen and Pierce wasn’t one that could be passed up – could it? Even with the asking price of Perkins, surely Garnett and the Brothers O’Neal were capable of maintaining Boston’s suffocating interior defense.

On second thought – perhaps it was Ainge’s arrogance that manifested itself in this trade.

The emotional impact is undeniable and was readily apparent in the reactions of Perkins’ former teammates when they learned of the news. The physical effects have been even more pronounced, resulting in a 15-12 record since the trade and a significant blow to Boston’s trademark defense. Derrick Rose’s endless barrage of forays to the basket last Thursday in a loss to the Bulls wasn’t an aberration, rather a nationally televised unmasking of the Celtics dirty little secret – the soft underbelly that is now their ability to defend the rim sans Perkins.

From an overall statistical standpoint, Boston remains one of the best interior defenses in the NBA. This however is an empty facade, a result of their first 55 games, which saw them limit opponents to 59.4% shooting at the rim, a percentage bested only by the Miami Heat. To be fair, Perkins was absent for a large portion of these games, with Jermaine and Shaq handling much of the interior duties, but suddenly with those two succumbing to injury and Perkins gone, things have digressed. In the 27 games since Perkins was dealt that initially pristine mark has swelled to nearly 64%, this puts the Celtics nearly on the league median. But the absence of Perkins goes far beyond numbers: Boston is suddenly vulnerable in a way we haven’t seen in years.

In a game rich with young guards who continually push the boundaries of their position, size remains directly correlated with success. The Lakers – for all of the adjectives used to describe Kobe Bryant – can point to their overwhelming frontcourt advantage as the base on which their back-to-back championship teams have been built. San Antonio and Chicago can point to the ability to defend the area around the rim as helping to propel them to the top seed in their respective conference playoffs. Is it any wonder that Oklahoma City has suddenly become an even bigger threat out west after providing a strong complement to Serge Ibaka inside? Boston’s intimidation factor is gone – teams aren’t deterred from driving the lane, an act that at best used to be cautionary.

Beyond his presence as an unselfish defender though, the void left by Perkins may be the single biggest argument for those that so staunchly oppose the statistical revolution. As much as I enthrall myself in the world of advanced stats, I do understand the need to sometimes throw caution to the wind and let the emotional aspect of the game have its due. The Celtics thrived on this emotion, dating back to that championship season, when they embraced the concept of Ubuntu.

Yet Ainge’s insistence that his (somewhat) failed offseason acquisitions in Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal could sustain the Perkins presence, not merely his production, was shortsighted. Boston may be better suited for the day when the Big Three retire and yes they got something in exchange for Perkins in the present, rather than losing him to free agency, but at what cost? A team once revered for its cohesiveness and lauded for its postseason play, has lost its edge and more importantly, likely its last chance at a title.

Is it unconventional that on a veteran laden team the loss of a 26-year-old proves to be its undoing? Of course, but then again, very little about Boston’s run of the last four years has been conventional. Now in a postseason filled with young and hungry sharks, the Celtics sudden vulnerability is akin to blood in the water and their life raft is wearing a new uniform.

Optimism Abound

Photo via IraGelb on Flickr

See the players’ confidence building. See players developing right before your eyes. That is what a rebuild is all about. A new big three has announced its arrival – Wall, Crawford and Blatche. Big minutes – big productivity – big results. And wins, too. We are short-handed and so players are getting bigger minutes to show the world what they can do. We have two first round draft picks next off season. We have cap space. We are young. We have upside. We are becoming an exciting team to watch. The sun is shining out today.

via Learning to Win, by Ted Leonsis, Ted’s Take

Optimism is an intoxicating thing. We surrender to this siren and let ourselves be led down whatever path our imagination may manifest itself into without regard for the limitations of reality. It’s the same drug that led Washington Wizards fans to believe that a 4-2 stretch in the closing weeks of the 2009-10 regular season was a possible sign of bigger things to come. We know how that reality has played out.

So why is a subsequent 4-2 run as 2011 comes to a close different?

The paradox of the Wizards is their struggles have reached such an extreme degree that otherwise inconsequential events – their recent three-game winning streak – lead to an outpouring of confidence for the future. But unlike last years run, spearheaded by the presence of veterans Mike Miller and Shaun Livingston, Washington fans can extol the growth of the (perhaps prematurely named) new big three.

Defining John Wall as the building block of the future is extraneous. His self actualization as a basketball player seems at once assured and already unfolding in the conclusion of his rookie season. From his realization of the fruitless nature of the race to catch Blake Griffin for post-season accolades, to the very clear improvements he has made in his ability to direct and run the pick-and-roll, his future is bright, even if it is currently overshadowed by a surplus of elite point guards.

Jordan Crawford’s distinctive game, flush with brilliant shooting displays and damning turnover spells perhaps serves as the perfect microcosm view of his team – showing promise within a litany of failures. The burgeoning guard plays with an infectious fervor, one that has left many questioning the mere presence of Nick Young’s scoring singularity on the roster. For those ready to hail the dual playmaker combination of Wall and Crawford as the backcourt of the future, perhaps the high ceiling that was set for Wall, Arenas and Hinrich trio will be enough to create some pause – but what do they have to lose?

Of course the “sage veteran” of the organization, Andray Blatche, has proven if nothing else that you can count on him to frustrate to the point of exhaustion. His most recent four-game run of 27.5 points and 14 rebounds per night only raises the bar further for next season as the 24-year-old is suddenly attacking the rim with a fervor rarely seen in his five-year career. Is it the latest aberration for a power forward who despite steadily improving season after season has seemingly always left something on the floor? Or has the maturing process finally manifested itself in on-the-court production?

JaVale McGee might be the closest thing the NBA has to a pandora’s box. It’s a shame his two-basket, two-ball dunk during All-Star weekend was overshadowed by the Blake Griffin show, as the third-year pro may be the only human being on the planet capable of accomplishing such a physical feat. It’s also telling that to this point, McGee’s potential has been summarized by a series of highlights and individual games rather than days and weeks of performance. He like Crawford accurately depicts the larger frustration of the Wizards organizations, able to reach the peaks with some degree of regularity, but never able to sustain the high.

There’s Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin, the two-first round picks in a draft classified as weak but with no discernible certainties and a developing core about as young as we can expect from an NBA team. There’s a laundry list of reasons why this team will never develop beyond the perception of team on the rise – chained to a future as a lesser version of what the Atlanta Hawks once represented, while fans still pine or the hopes of a product more akin to the Oklahoma City model. Yet collectively all of these factors – big and small – culminate in the current state of the Wizards, that hope is a better reality than answers to the endless questions that surround the organization.

Optimism is abound in our nation’s capital – let youth be served.

Lamar Odom’s Prison

Photo via David Locke 1 of Flickr

Years from now we may look back on Lamar Odom as the tragic figure of the 2010-2011 NBA season, locked in a perpetual grey area of explanation. Defining the nature of the 31-year-old Laker veteran is akin to defining the role with which he is most often associated – 6th man. It’s a position that has evolved with time but still remains vague in characterization, existing only within the context of “player has come off the bench more times than he has started” nomenclature. Odom has reached a point in his ever changing career where his talent and production levels seemingly eclipse what we consider to be the boundaries of a so-called “role player” and in doing so has subsequently left himself suspended in basketball purgatory.

The easy and immediate argument for those opposed to the awarding of 6th Man of the Year to a player of Odom’s status and ability is the simple fact that he is on pace to start more games than any previous recipient. He so closely toes the line for that hard cutoff of playing time that many are inclined to simply push him over the edge into full fledged starter. Yet, it is the fact that Odom, as a result of his timely and elite level of play, shatters our preconceptions of what a player off the bench can be. This – not the number of starts – is truly the decisive factor in the publics’ decisive opinion.

Consider the other leading candidates: Jamal Crawford, Glen Davis, Ty Lawson, George Hill and James Harden. Do any of these names hold a candle to Odom for sheer force of person? Not even a vital component off the bench for a championship contender like Davis is for the Celtics, can match the Lakers x-factor for perception of performance. It isn’t just that we know Odom is good, it’s that we know he can be and often is great. He exists as one of the few players in the NBA where the general consensus is that his worth is far beyond his numbers (though 14.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg and 19.8 PER hardly scream unnoticed), and that just doesn’t fit the archetype for a 6th man.

Of course, the tragic and somewhat ironic twist of Odom’s 12-year career is his inability to break through the stereotype that he is at best a supporting cast member. He has reached a level of production where he is considered beyond the scope of receiving an award for being an elite contributor off the bench, yet when considering the best players in the game is still typecast in this mold. His public perception has outgrown one classification, but he hasn’t yet been handed the keys to the next – how else do you explain a complete absence of any recognition of individual achievement in his career?

Perhaps the only archetype for bridging this gap in recent memory has just completed that transition himself, this being Manu Ginobili. The star power of Tim Duncan overshadowed the Argentinean early in his career and it was only when the Spurs franchise player began to digress as he aged, that the true worth of Ginobili became apparent. Much as was the case when Scottie Pippen emerged from Michael Jordan’s shadow in that 1994 season, perhaps Odom won’t truly evolve into a publicly perceived star until Kobe Bryant’s ultimate demise begins.

That of course brings us back to the 6th Man Award. Does Odom winning the award this season exonerate him as a perceived “starter” and rightfully establish him as the game’s greatest bench option? Or does it further condemn him to a career of being underrated, viewed through the lens of good but not great? Or is it both?

Perhaps Odom is at once victimized and elevated by his circumstances. On a team devoid of such star power isn’t it conceivable that the multi-talented forward’s career would run parallel to that of Shawn Marion? The former Sun played on some strong teams in Phoenix to be sure, but not to the degree that Odom has in Los Angeles and yet for the lack of a lasting legacy, Marion is a four-time All-Star. Yet for the absence of plaques and awards, it is the championship banners he has helped hang that will elevate Odom’s historical legacy.

Do these lengthy tangents have any place in the debate of Odom’s classification as it stands? Again, like the vague conceptualization of his role within the framework of his own team, the answer is both clear, yet intangible. As he stretches the boundaries for what we perceive a 6th man to be, perhaps he will one day be viewed as the prototype for the future of this role in the game.

The Alternate Path To Establishment

Photo via Genseric 455 on Flickr

I’m a sports anchor/reporter by trade. The sports television world is an exciting, fast paced industry, one that I had longed to be a part of for most of my childhood, so having been lucky enough to land a job not long after college was a dream come true.

The one part of the profession that I find both frustrating and exciting is the lack of an archetype for the blueprint of success. Talk to 20 successful reporters and you’re apt to hear 20 vastly different stories for how they got to where they are. To be sure, most professions have a degree of variance between starting point and the journey to ultimate end point, but the wiggle room for differences is slight compared to the media world.

Lawyers attend Law School and work their way up at their firm, hoping to one day make partner. Doctors attend medical school, complete their residency and work their way up in either private practice or a larger organization. I’ve met reporters who started in radio, been newspaper reporters, spent time in the public relations world, I even ran across one who started as a secretary on a political campaign. In the TV world, the ends justify the means.

Similarly, the NBA is hardly a bastion of concrete paths to establishing oneself, be it as a star, role player or career-long bench warmer. Careers and roles are fluid, for most they are in a constant state of flux. This lack of a yellow brick road to firm ground is what makes the League simultaneously thrilling and frustrating as we watch players rise and fall, overachieve and bust before our eyes. Even within the context of the unknown, the lack of sturdiness to both reality and our perceptions of it, the series of events that have led up to Tyler Hansbrough’s blistering March are unique.

Perhaps no college star in recent memory has at once reaped the benefits and seen the damning effects of college stardom as the former North Carolina standout has.  A household name seemingly by the end of his freshman season, few players in the last decade have spent so much time in the spotlight so as to be simultaneously revered by college fans and opponents, but equally dissected by pro fans.

Even Adam Morrison – riddled with deficiencies that we could all see would manifest them at the pro level eventually – was given a fighting chance in the beginning. Hansbrough, quite possibly the best college player of his decade (from a career accomplishment standpoint) was written off as an NBA player the second his career at Carolina ended with a national championship. The stigma of his physical limitations was enough to overshadow a four-year run of consistent production that has rarely been seen in arguably the college games most storied conference.

Shortly after being drafted by the Indiana Pacers – he simply vanished from national awareness. Plagued by a prolonged bout with vertigo and failing to click on any level with then head coach Jim O’Brien, Hansbrough went the way so many predicted for him, disappearing into obscurity, the fact that it was matters beyond his control didn’t matter.

In late January, O’Brien was fired and interim head coach Frank Vogel immediately pledged increased playing time for a now healthy Hansbrough who has averaged 27 minutes a night over the last two months. But all we want to talk about is March, the time when the second-year pro used to take center stage at Chapel Hill, a titanic force amidst the college game. Now he is doing it for the Pacers, posting averages of better than 20 points and 8 rebounds over his last 10 games, numbers that scream breakthrough, finally getting it, establishing himself, arriving on the scene.

At the risk of creating an uprising in Tar Heel Nation, we know this degree of production is unlikely to last. Hansbrough, for all of the improvements he is making in his game, is simply capitalizing on scenarios where defenses aren’t paying him the level of attention afforded a player producing his kind of stat line. If and when this does happen, his numbers will likely return to the much more believable line of 15 and 6, his averages since Vogel took over the reins in Indiana. But this isn’t about whether or not Hansbrough will continue his ascent to become a full fledged star or regress to his likely mean and operate as a solid starter for the next decade in the Hoosier State. This is about how he arrived at being the focal point of this conversation.

We live in an age where players develop before our eyes, each step of the way analyzed and assessed. Somehow, Hansbrough has managed to avoid this scrutiny, his growth as a player executed behind the scenes during his exile on the bench. Yet, this may be exactly why he has managed to emerge as a viable option for the Pacers since his reemergence. Had he been treated in the same manner as his equals at the college level – the Durant’s and Beasley’s of the world – he undoubtedly would have been set up for failure under the heat of the spotlight. At the same time, rare has been the player so accomplished in college, who has the bar set so incredibly low. Maybe that’s why this sudden explosion over the last couple of weeks has the NBA buzzing.

At this point Hansbrough’s extended test run with big minutes is akin to seeing a movie where expectations are low, but the finished product is above average so the reviews are great – isn’t it? The only problem is his career happens to be a film we’ve already seen, but has just been redone slightly better a few years later. The forward has already spent so much time in the limelight that by the time his NBA career began his strengths and weaknesses were widely known and his ceiling as a player appeared to be reached, he’s just adapted.

Maybe it’s appropriate that Hansbrough’s path to emergence in the NBA is unconventional as most fans would likely agree that it mirrors his role as an unconventional player. While most college stars develop in the spotlight and further their growth or fade away as the light grows brighter, Hansbrough instead departed into the shadows before returning to outdo initial expectations. For a player who has built himself on a tireless work ethic and hustle this trajectory only stands to further entrench him as the archetype for the heralded college star turned forgotten commodity in the NBA.

The Miami Heat: A Study In Perceived Extremes

Photo courtesy of Saschagrafie on Flickr

Hindsight being what it is, when the Miami Heat ultimately fall in the playoffs, a wave of columns (blog posts, Facebook status’, tweets) will materialize proclaiming the first super team a failure. We’ll hear about how the dynamic of two alpha dogs was doomed from the start. How the supporting cast was lacking in depth and talent. We’ll hear about how all those who predicted instant success for Miami Thrice were off their rocker from the beginning. Yet, the irony will be as soon as the first circus ends another will begin.

Of all the benefits that 24/7 sports coverage has provided, it has fostered a culture that is quickly moving towards the point of completely lacking any semblance of patience. Much like rabid fans live and die with every play, it seems as though teams and players write and rewrite their legacies on a week to week basis. Blake Griffin had barely established himself as a rising superstar when talk of him one day leaving the Clippers for another franchise began. The Lakers had some eyebrow raising loses prior to the All-Star break and suddenly their title hopes are collapsing. These examples pale in the face of what the Heat have wrought.

It wasn’t all that long ago we were content to watch teams and players develop over time. The ones destined for greatness were given leeway, the ends justified the means. When the Houston Rockets followed up their 1994 NBA Championship with a third place finish in their division it wasn’t as if anarchy had taken hold of southeast Texas. I was a kid then, but I followed the game intently enough to know that the sky wasn’t falling in Rockets land. There was a sense about things then – get to the playoffs, then the real games begin. It’s been the motto for the Spurs for the last decade and suffice it to say, they’ve done OK for themselves.

But the Heat? They’ve been anointed, torn down, left for dead, buried then dug up only to restart the process again from the beginning. Consider the following:

Miami’s Dwayne Wade Not Yet Holding Up His End Of The Bargain – Miami Herald, November 28th

Miami Heat’s Power Trip Continues – Miami Herald, January 8th

More Misery: Miami Heat Loses Fifth Game In A Row – Miami Herald, March 8th

It certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, but gives a timeline to the peaks and valleys of life in Miami this season.

With the Heat it’s an endless stream of extreme practices in perception. Lebron and Co. are either a juggernaut or a massive disappointment, there is no middle ground. They’ve run hot and cold to be sure, proving equally thrilling and frustrating when operating at optimal and subpar levels, but somewhere along the way the big picture has been lost when evaluating Miami.

History isn’t going to judge this team based on a nearly flawless month of December or meltdowns in March against Chicago and San Antonio. The Heat will be remembered as all potentially great teams are, by what they do in the playoffs. Few remember the way some of the Spurs championship teams meandered through the regular season, only that they were the last one standing when the season’s final buzzer sounded. The Celtics were close to being written off last season, the window having closed on their aging team, before pushing the Lakers to a decisive seventh game. The opposite is true for the back-to-back 60-win teams that Lebron led in Cleveland, years from now they will ultimately fade into obscurity as do so many teams that come up short.

No, there’s never been a situation like Miami’s before. The Heat entered the season with more hype than any team in NBA history, but that hype has manifested itself into a microscopic viewpoint of the franchise and its development. Every homestand is a test of cohesiveness, every road trip a postseason preview. The concept of judging a team on the merit of its final product has been lost in the blinding spotlight of South Beach.

Perhaps this is the future of the NBA. In a universe where players are seemingly constructing their own teams there isn’t room for patience and development – only results. How soon until we view the Knicks through the same lens of extremities? If the Nets buy themselves into contention will they be subjected to the same criteria?

There are certainly more questions than answers, an infinite number of divergent paths that ultimately lead us to one inevitable truth: the Heat may be perceived as operating at any number of extremes throughout the season, but they will be judged universally by what lies ahead.

On Steve Nash And Assumptions

Photo via Rain City Girl on Flickr

Assumptions are a funny thing. They invade the mind, spawn and manifest themselves in ways that affect our thought process in manners beyond our scope of comprehension. Our day to day existence is very much impacted whether we know it or not. A bad experience as a child can alter the way we perceive things later in life. A faulty product leaves us believing the worst about the company as a whole. Assumptions aren’t always a bad thing they simply alter our acuity, often shifting perception, with the variable being the size of the scale.

Perhaps one of the most widespread assumptions as they pertain to professional sports – and one that has traditionally proven to be accurate – is that advancement in age results in a drop-off in production. Sooner or later, every athlete in every sport hits that wall. Shots don’t fall like they used to, the familiar spring in the legs is evanescent and the bumps linger longer than they used to. We simply assume that once our stars start creeping closer to 40 that it’s all over, whether or not they age gracefully or leave us cringing, they start fading to black.

What happens when they don’t get that memo? The Celtics Big 3 continue to produce at a high level despite being on the down slope of their playing days and have been lauded for it – rightfully so. Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki remain among the NBA’s most revered players even being past their expected primes (though Dirk at 32 is still technically there). How is it then, with this crop of aging superstars still very much dominating the league’s spotlight that Steve Nash – in the midst of arguably his best season ever from a statistical standpoint – has managed to fade from the discussion of best active point guards?

With all due respect to Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, et al, Nash’s production at the ripe age of 37 makes him the most impressive floor general still lacing them up. Playing for a Suns team that is a shell of the thrilling Phoenix teams of a few years ago, the modern day Godfather of the pick and roll is “quietly” putting together a line of 16 points and 11 assists while shooting nearly 51% from the floor and 38% beyond the arc. His per-36 numbers are right up there with his best seasons during his prime and his assist numbers have never been better. The sage veteran ranks in the top ten among all point guards in scoring, assists, field-goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and free throw percentage and yet isn’t good enough to make the All-Star team.

Some may call it the passing of the torch to a new generation of point guards, I call is subconscious ageism. Our image of Nash’s greatness is so convoluted with what we perceive him to be rather than what he is, that in the midst of another brilliant season in the expected twilight of his career, he is lost in a sea of youthful exuberance and explosiveness at the point guard position. We’re blinded by our own assumptions of one of the game’s great playmakers.

What we’re seeing has never been done before and like so many new and unfamiliar entities that we encounter, we misjudge what is in front of us. In this “Golden Age of the Point Guard” we’re blessed to witness explosive, young players equally as capable of dolling out 15 assists as they are of completing jaw dropping forays to the rim. Nash’s beautiful gift of playing angles and seeing passing lanes that no one else does is overshadowed by individuals who simply obliterate the geometry of the game. But above all else, Nash simply isn’t falling in line with our preconceived notions of an aging point guard.

It’s acceptable for Ray Allen to remain a marquee individual because we all know the jumper is the last thing to go. Kobe is one of the fiercest competitors of his or any generation, so he can will himself to the basket until he is 50 for all we care. But for Nash, playing a position that requires speed, athleticism and the latest trend a 36-inch vertical, he manages to stay elite in a world that assumes otherwise.

The greatest hope for every fan is that their favorite stars can play forever, but the mortality of their greatness is constantly present in our understanding of them. We watch because we know what is, won’t always be. Yet somehow, Nash has managed to outlive our predestined conceptualization of his career, but rather than pay witness to this remarkable aberration, the public’s state of mind forges on to the latest and greatest.

Maybe it’s time to take a step back.

Winners Prosper: The Case For Manu

Photo via Macchese on Flickr

The shocking exclusion of Reggie Miller from the forthcoming 2011 Hall of Fame ballot left us with a flurry of questions – not the least of which being, in what twisted narrative is Mark Jackson placed on the ballot over Miller? But like so many perplexing turns of plot I was left contemplating the fates of players whose final chapters are still being written.

We know Kobe Bryant will be forever immortalized in Springfield one day, it’s simply a matter of how large his legacy will loom over the game. Should the Lakers win another championship this summer, Bryant’s sixth, some will at least entertain the idea of placing the Black Mamba among the five greatest to ever play the game. Whether or not you agree with that sentiment, the argument at least has legs, due in no small part to the sheer amount of titles he has accumulated in his illustrious career. That’s the thing about the NBA , save for quarterbacks, no other team-sport athletes are subjected to the kind of personal scrutiny related to winning that basketball players are. A surplus of championships can elevate an individual beyond his numbers, while a lack thereof can severely diminish his place in history.

Perhaps then, no player stands to gain more in the remaining months of this season than Manu Ginobili.

In his purest form Ginobili is one of the best all-around players in the league at his position, possibly the biggest steal in draft history and among the craftiest players of his generation. But beyond that basic façade stands one of the more underrated NBA personalities in the last 20 years. While even now he deserves to be mentioned in the pantheon of big game guards who never quite earned their due ala Sam Jones, Dennis Johnson and Joe Dumars, Ginobili has been granted an opportunity many greats never receive: the chance to be the leader of a team. Jones and Johnson were role players on stellar Celtics teams and Dumars was a sidekick to the Isaiah Thomas glory years. After years of filling every role from sixth man, to defensive stalwart and crunch time closer, the Spurs now belong to Ginobili.

Is the torrid start to San Antonio’s season purely the fruit of the 33-year-old’s labor? Of course not, but in a year where the storyline could just as easily be the slow decline of Tim Duncan, it has been on the resurgence of a franchise thought to be too old to compete at this level anymore. The Spurs are on pace for 67 wins, they’re a legitimate contender and Ginobili is their best player. If San Antonio wins it all this year – certainly a major if – how can he not be viewed in the scope of the hall of famer discussion?

He’s been a vital component to three championship teams, arguably the x-factor in two of them. He’s been a tremendous big game player, continuously rising to the occasion when the lights are the brightest. But most importantly, he’s been a winner, whether in a supporting role or the lead character. Much like Scottie Pippen wasn’t fully appreciated until he carried the Bulls in 1994, Ginobili’s true greatness is fully manifesting itself now that he has assumed the alpha dog role for San Antonio.

Naysayers will point to his accomplishments within the context of the elite players in the NBA. No, he’s never been one of the five best guards in the NBA. At most you can possibly argue he’s been a top ten player once (2007-08) and last weekend was just his second appearance in an All-Star game. The basic statistics he’s ever been among the elite in has been steals and free throw shooting percentage.  Even when factoring in his championships, this hardly seems the profile of a player deserving of being in the hall of fame picture. To gain a full understanding of his place in history one needs to go beyond the basics though.

Ginobili ranks in the top 35 all time in player efficiency rating and his reputation as an elite defender is further reinforced by the 28th best defensive rating in NBA history. For those who favor even more advanced statistics, consider that the Spurs guard is 10th all time in win shares per 48 minutes. Of the nine players ahead of him on this list, all are already in the hall of fame save for teammate Tim Duncan and Lebron James, both virtual locks to be enshrined one day. His career regular season and playoff numbers compare favorably to the aforementioned greats like Johnson, Dumars and Jones – so maybe much as was the case with these three, he won’t fully be appreciated in historical context until long after his career has ended.

So what would happen if San Antonio went all the way this year? It would concurrently be the most surprising team development the NBA has seen in years and completely reshape the public perception of Ginobili’s legacy. Do I think he is a hall of famer right now? No, in the discussion absolutely, but ultimately he is on the outside looking in. But we’ve seen how quickly and drastically a championship can alter and reshape a player’s lasting footprint. Kobe’s first title sans Shaq got the monkey off his back. A second suddenly vaulted him into top ten consideration. Another title for Ginobili means he was the first, second or third best player on four championship teams, leaves him as one of the elite winners of his generation and firmly puts him into the hall of fame discussion.

That is, unless the committee opts to put Bruce Bowen on the ballot instead.